Face (2002)

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Face (2002) Review


The concept of "losing face" is the titular reference made by Bertha Bay-Sa Pan's Face, the story of three generations of Chinese-American women living in Queens (during both the 1970s and 1990s) whose lives are forever altered by an adherence to outmoded beliefs. Earnest and intermittently poignant despite its obvious construction, Bay-Sa Pan's drama is yet another in a long line of cinematic stories about immigrant families struggling to simultaneously assimilate and retain their ethnic heritage. And while it brings little freshness to the burgeoning sub-genre, this minor film - mildly affecting even considering its uneven performances and some grating use of music - nonetheless conveys the intractability of long-held attitudes and the frequent impossibility of cross-generational reconciliation.

The life of demure, respectful teenager Kim (Bai Ling) is forever altered when, after being raped by acquaintance Daniel (Will Yun Lee), she discovers she's pregnant and is forced by her mother Mrs. Lieu (Kieu Chinh) - who blames Kim for the situation, and who's eager to minimize her own dishonor - to marry her spiteful attacker. Desperate to escape this miserable betrothed life, Kim eventually snaps, leaving the baby girl in her mother's care before fleeing for Hong Kong. Nineteen years later, Kim returns to Queens to attend her resentful daughter Genie's (Kristy Wu) high school graduation, only to find tradition-rejecting history repeating itself. Ignoring her grandmother's disapproving stance toward anything modern or American, Genie surreptitiously wears belly shirts that display her forbidden naval piercing, hangs out with non-Chinese friends, and has begun dating Michael (Anthony "Treach" Criss, frontman for Naughty by Nature), an African-American DJ whose skin color makes him, in the eyes of Genie's elderly guardian, an unacceptable boyfriend.

Bay-Sa Pan's debut details these hardheaded women's attempts to have a dialogue with the past - including Mrs. Lieu, who engages in nightly bedside chats with her deceased husband - while trying to embrace contemporary norms. The problem, however, is that there's little inventiveness to Face, which delivers few new wrinkles in its familiar narrative concerning the problems faced by children of foreign-born parents. Clunky instances of xenophobia abound, from Kim's uncle (who had promised her a job in the family business before she became pregnant) telling Kim to accept her role as docile domestic servant to Mrs. Lieu refusing to eat American food and a Chinatown grocer mistaking Michael for a thief, and Bay-Sa Pan's script (written with Oren Moverman) dramatizes such moments with tin-ear dialogue and unimaginative symbolism. "Enjoy what you are" proclaims a didactic sticker over Genie's mirror as she gets dressed, a sign of the rebellious teen's attempt to embrace her own mixed-cultural identity as well as an emblem of the film's creaky lack of subtlety.

As Kim, the radiant Ling underplays her part to the point of vacuity, and she's regularly upstaged by Wu, whose occasional lapses into off-putting childish pouting don't interfere with her sensitive, measured evocation of youthful bitterness. More problematic is Treach, whose stilted cheeriness is magnified by the script's insistence that Michael be a flawless saint who doesn't blink an eye at the prejudice directed at him, likes to cuddle after sex, and chivalrously chaperones his bedroom conquests home on the subway. Bay-Sa Pan's blocking - which frequently places people on the outskirts of her widescreen frame - elucidates the characters' frustration at having to straddle the line between old-world conventions and new-world fun, and her climax thankfully forgoes tidy familial reconciliation in favor of more realistically disappointing estrangement. But by italicizing nearly every charged scene with cheesy American and Chinese pop ballads, the director seems all too cognizant of her pedestrian script's inability to express more than superficial pathos.



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